Want to make Top 8 at a Pro Tour? There's a secret those smiling faces each know.
Thoralf Severin knows what it's like to prepare in earnest for a Pro Tour or World Championship, to put in the days and weeks of testing your ideas, to play the bad guy for your teammates to test their ideas, to crunch data in preparation for Limited and put it all together under the pressure cooker that is the Pro Tour spotlight. After all, the 2019 winner has done it all before.
He's running it back next week, after a finals appearance at a Regional Championship earlier this year qualified him for Magic World Championship XXIX at MagicCon: Las Vegas. Given that this event features a field just a touch over 100 players, it falls into a spot we haven't really seen before — much larger than the 32-player field of recent years, but still much smaller than the 300-plus fields we see at the Pro Tour.
Where does a path to #MTGWorlds start? Players we talked with consistently said it's their friends and teammates!— PlayMTG (@PlayMTG) September 13, 2023
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That makes the team aspect — already key in any high-level tournament — even more vital than usual. In a smaller field, all it takes is a couple of testing partners also competing to enlist a big chunk of the competitors. And in a larger field, there's less pressure to keep a team small because there's a much lower chance of running into each other — you don't want your team to break it just to have to play against it every other round because you shared info with half of the 16-player field.
So when it comes to the World Championship that kicks off next Friday with Wilds of Eldraine Draft, we've seen teams form as qualified players jockey for position and a spot at the proverbial draft table. With at least a half-dozen groups of six or more World Championship competitors on squads, one way to look at the 110 drafters is as a collection of 10 different teams of draft pods coming together to see whose preparation and number crunching and all the rest came together best.
Severin knows how important all of this is: strong Draft performances are what Top 8 runs are made of. It's the area where experienced players, pro teams, and Limited specialists all surmise that they can gain the biggest edge on the rest of the field. It's a theory that's traditionally held up — sure, there's occasionally Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch where two teams solve the Eldrazi equation and thoroughly lap the rest of the field in Constructed; but more typically, everyone enters a tournament knowing more or less what the top two or three decks are. While there's certainly room to be gained there, the bar tends to be lower than developing Limited mastery — there's not much substitute for jamming draft after draft of the set, especially when that set is Wilds of Eldraine and comes with a bonus sheet of seldom-seen cards.
As technology — both in the literal and colloquial Magic sense — has improved over the years, Draft prep has become intense. Severin, preparing for the World Championship with Team Channel Fireball Ultimate Guard, has a way to keep things simple.
"Over the years, I've practiced with many strong teams — but this group definitely has the most Hall of Famers," he explained with a smile. "Having a strong team is invaluable, as you can't do much on your own. You need so many different perspectives and inputs; and usually, I'm a fan of the more, the better. But because this event is somewhat small, you need to get enough for drafting and to get the games in, but you can't make up like up 20% of the field. I'm thrilled to be testing with the team, the players are incredibly good and organized."
Anyone would be thrilled in Severin's spot — the crew of 10 qualified players is among the largest groups preparing together, which is largely a product of the existing team qualifying so many people for the season's ultimate tournament. With Hall of Famers Reid Duke, Gabriel Nassif, and Seth Manfield headlining what is probably the event's most accomplished group — there's PT winners and World Championship finalists up and down this draft pod. Last month, I wrote about that "welcome to the Pro Tour" moment, and the experiences people shared involved sitting down to a stacked Draft on Day One.
Well, how about this one, made up of Severin's teammates?
- Reid Duke
- Gabriel Nassif
- Seth Manfield
- Sam Pardee
- Eli Kassis
- Jim Davis
- Ondřej Stráský
- Jakub Tóth
- Brent Vos
That's a nine-player pod, but you get the idea. The point is, what kind of table is going to intimidate you on Friday morning of the World Championship after a week of battling against the '27 Yankees of Magic drafters? There's nothing that comes close to providing that level of training, and Severin doesn't plan on wasting the opportunity.
"Since Magic has moved to the Regional Championship system, it's been hard for me to get to tournaments since there haven't been many around Berlin, so the World Championship is kind of my last shot right now," he explained. "It's such an honor and a blast to play this exclusive event, and I want to prepare as best as I possibly can. I don't want to put expectations on it because I think it can put a lot of pressure on you if you take it too seriously, but my hope is to requalify for the next Pro Tour."
CFB isn't the only team going large. Worldly Counsel, which includes Pro Tour The Lord of The Rings finalist and Tron enthusiast Christian Calcano, counts 10 deep qualified on their roster. Team Handshake — the most dominant team of the season — has exactly a draft pod qualified, as does the self-named team "The Misfits," featuring breakout performers like Derrick Davis, Benton Madsen and Chris Ferber. The next-largest roster belongs to the Japanese superteam featuring former World Champion Yuta Takahashi and five-time Top Finisher Yuuki Ichikawa.
You know we're getting close to the big time when @MTGRich comes in to write! It's time for our #MTGWorlds preview article!— PlayMTG (@PlayMTG) September 12, 2023
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To put it another way, almost 40% of the entire World Championship field comes from just five testing teams. At that scale, even minor differences in card evaluations will have cascading effects throughout the 14 or 15 Draft tables that make up the first three rounds of the tournament.
Something Pro Tour viewers might not realize is that while all of these players are competing individually, one of the first things they often talk to us about on coverage is how their team is performing. Players recognize that individual tournament results come and go, but a strong team performance indicates their preparation process was on point and brings them back around for another try.
That's the process that's led Team Handshake to unparalleled success in 2022 and 2023. Reigning World Champion Nathan Steuer earns most of the attention (and understandably so), but his historic victories have come on the back of best-in-the-world deckbuilding, drafting, and deciphering what the rest of the field is most likely to turn up with. Unless you're Shota Yasooka (one of several players confirmed preparing on their own, as you would expect from the one-of-a-kind legend), then Magic is a team game that happens to be played 1-on-1, and Steuer's World Championship run is the product of shared hard work from a team that includes another former World Champion in Javier Dominguez, as well as David Inglis, Simon Nielsen, and Karl Sarap.
Speaking of champs, the latest one is Jake Beardsley, who enters the World Championship fresh off a win at Pro Tour The Lord of the Rings two months ago in Barcelona. He's testing with team Sanctum of All, which lists a handful of other qualified players including Mythic Championship I winner Autumn Burchett, Pro Tour March of the Machine Top Finisher Cain Rianhard, and US Regional Championship winner Bradley Schlesinger.
"Learning Limited is always the tricky part," Beardsley explained. "But especially with the reduced rounds in Constructed, only playing eight instead of 10, my focus is on Limited. There's where I can get the biggest edge, or at least where other people can get the biggest edge on me. I'm not much of a Limited player usually, so that's where it's really great to have a team."
As Rich Hagon detailed earlier this week, it's not at all a stretch to call this the most important Draft of these players' entire lives. And as Beardsley pointed out, the Draft looms larger at this World Championship than any Pro Tour due to fewer rounds — it's not just that tiebreakers are forged on Friday morning, it's that it's simply impossible to make a deep run at this event without a mastery of Wilds of Eldraine.
Of course, as much as we've gotten into the weeds about what it means to be on a team for this tournament and all the time and energy and number-crunching into it, there is one other factor to consider: even at the Pro Tour, it's still Magic: The Gathering.
"People on our team were generally added based on their character references. We figured that while it was important to add skilled players, it was just as important that those players be constructive in the way they contributed," explained Pro Tour Phyrexia finalist Benton Madsen, who is again working with Derrick Davis along with Chris Ferber, Ken Takahama, Alex Von Stange and several other qualified players. "Pro Tour The Lord of The Rings wasn't a standout Pro Tour for either myself or Derrick, but I felt really good about our prep and the attitude of the people we were working with, so we have largely run it back for Worlds. The team is lovely and has been really pleasant to work with."
It's a factor not to be overlooked — in many cases these teams are spending what amounts to weeks of their lives together in a very short period, all with a shared goal. That sparks lifelong connections, and it's the reason you see so many excited friends rush the stage as soon as their teammate wins the tournament.
"I have no idea what to expect from this tournament. I'm guessing regardless of how I do, I'm going to feel emotionally overwhelmed when I board the plane to leave Vegas," Madsen reflected. "Players take months laying the groundwork for a team's success, and then the whole event is over in two days, and the whole time you're thinking as hard as you can about the games, and you don't get to process everything that's happened until it's over. All of the disappointment, or elation, hits you at once."
That's another very good reason to have teammates.
Follow the World Championship and its $1,000,000 prize pool when it kicks off on Friday, September 22!